24 November 2011

#OccupyDameStreet - The Protest Movement in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Richard McAleavey shares an aside with Helena Sheehan
#OccupyDameStreet, Dublin, Wednesday 23rd November
Wednesday saw the turn of Richard McAleavey, member of the Irish Twitterati and occasional commentator on this blog, to take the hot-seat in #OccupyUniversity (technically a very, very cold seat on this particular afternoon) and deliver a workshop on the subject of 'Writing in the Age of Networked Occupation'. While the original concept for this workshop may have been to look at some concrete examples of blogs and websites produced by or focusing on global and local #Occupy Movements and other contemporary protests, McAleavey instead explored the idea of online writing and how it could support such Movements (and I think it was a stronger workshop for doing so).

While I cannot do his workshop any justice (as I was too busy listening to write down adequate notes, and what notes I did write down look like the illegible breakdancing of a hyperactive ink-soaked spider drunk on Buckfast, it really was very cold indeed), interestingly enough he began with a quote from Walter Benjamin that I'm pretty partial to myself:
For centuries the situation in literature was such that a small number of writers faced many thousands of times that number of readers. Then, towards the end of the last century, there came a change. As the press grew in volume, making ever-increasing numbers of new political, religious, scientific, professional and local organs available to its readership, larger and larger sections of that readership (gradually at first) turned unto writers. It began with the daily newspapers opening their 'correspondence columns' to such people, and it has now reached a point where few Europeans involved in the labour process could fail, basically, to find some opportunity or other to publish an experience at work, a complaint, a piece of reporting or something similar. The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character.

- From The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
While writing in 1936, the passage's obvious relevance to any analysis of blogging makes it a firm favourite of mine (along with the essay in general).

Topics explored in the talk included the diference between writing in a purely factual style acting as impartial observer and that of the language of rousing battle cries or the manifesto, and the challenges of both when faced with a neutral audience and the need for the author to understand who they are writing for and why (a challenge that I feel I have yet to overcome). The value of social networks for a protest movement was debated in some depth, with the contrast highlighted between the ability to broadcast information to unprecedented degrees and the way in which online behaviour encourages a level of passivity (think of the Iranian uprising and the way Twitter users turned their avatars green in support, but didn't engage any further in the world beyond their computer) that can be counterproductive to movements trying to rally actual support on the ground. The battle for the online narrative between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution was also touched on, and it would seem that the take-home is that the counter-revolution of the 1% have got their shots in first. Out of these discussions came a few concrete proposals for ways in which #OccupyDameStreet could more effectively reach out to the wider public beyond their core activist base, a good result from a great workshop.

On the whole I was rather proud of myself during this talk, launching into only the briefest of vitriolic diatribes when the theme of The Power of Social Networks(TM) was raised, and managing to stay almost entirely on-topic. As you may know I have a healthy disdain for Social Networks, Facebook especially and Twitter only slightly less so. The enforced brevity of online conversations constrained by character limitations or other formatting restrictions imposed by these media and the fact they they exist not to facilitate human interaction but to allow a third-party to benefit materially from those interactions means that at best they should serve as a marketing tool, at worst I believe that they are the High Fructose Corn Syrup of human communication, empty calories that lead to hyperactivity and obesity of the mind.

In a culture ruled by the tyranny of the instant where speed is valued over reflection, the immediacy of the Social Network encourages rapid responses to tweets and on walls that are forgotten as soon as they are posted, washed away by the next deluge of digital ephemera to hit your inbox. The soundbite society has infected us all, our attention spans incapable of processing anything more than 140 characters at a time, where even clicking through to a referenced original is a task too arduous for most. We feel more aware than at any time before in human history, our feeds and streams bombard us every sixty seconds with constant updates from every corner of the globe, but the knowledge gained is that of a thousand headlines and never the story that lies beneath, for the act of skimming those thousand headlines leaves no time to read more than a single story below. In this, the Information Age, we truly know the price of everything and the value of nothing, for information is a commodity and Social Networks are the brokers, as soon as it is received we trade it away immediately, we Like it, Share it, +1 it away to our pseudo-friends and our mind is empty again, ready to absorb (for a moment only) the next nugget of news that lands in our lap, an eternal recycle cycle available twenty-four-seven, three-sixty-five, web two-point-oh.

The irony of ending up for the last seven weeks in a Movement that was born with a hashtag in its mouth is not lost on me, but before I get carried away by the hobby horse driving my wagon-train of rantiness, it is worth returning once again to Benjamin:
The mass is a matrix from which currently all customary responses to works of art are springing newborn. Quantity has now become quality: the very much greater masses of participants have produced a changed kind of participation... The tasks that at times of great historical upheaval the human perceptual apparatus is asked to perform are simply not solvable by visual means alone - that is to say, through contemplation. They are gradually mastered, on the instructions of tactile reception, by man's getting used to them. Getting used to things is something even the distracted can do. More: the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction is what proves that solving them has become a person's habit... The audience is an examiner, but a distracted one.

- From The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
The worry of the desensitizing effect of information overload, of a call to arms losing its impact when experienced a thousand times, was as great a concern seventy-five years ago as it is today. The lesson from Benjamin would appear to be that while the impact of social networks on the understanding of any one individual might be minimal, the positive effects on the masses might be more substantial, that while the individual may only absorb a modicum of new information through their daily digital bombardment, the collective effect is a tangible positive as large numbers of individuals gaining even small amounts of information that they would not otherwise have can only be a good thing for society as a whole.

The challenge lies, as McAleavey pointed out yesterday, in figuring out how to transform the informed citizen into an active one.

A thousand Likes still doesn't mean a single person will man the barricades.

Update (29/11/11)
The original text of Richard McAleavey's workshop is now available online at his blog here.

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At 10:30 am, Anonymous John Green said...

Hi Unkie Dave

Very interesting article (and quality pic of Richard and Helena!). My presence here constitutes a further irony for you, in that I wouldn't have read your piece at all were it not for links from Facebook. In my circles, at least, Twitter and FB tend not to be used for throwaway one-liners or succinct sales pitches but to link to more substantial, complex, and reflective articles (such as your own and Richard's), sometimes, but not always, in the MSM, as well as uploaded videos from sites of struggle. Therein, I think, lies the value of social networks: as a means of horizontal dissemination between friends and comrades that doesn't necessarily bypass vertical and hierarchical dissemination but allows for a discussion to begin, rather than one-way communication. As you point out, far more people now can become a part of the conversation, can participate in the public sphere produced by Internet 2.0, and not just as passive readers but as contributors, whether by blogging, leaving comments, or just retweeting.

While I'm not convinced either way by the "technology is never neutral" argument, I'd be inclined to the view that all technology has potentialities beyond its intended use, much as literacy itself became a weapon against the church in the Middle Ages. I'm also inclined towards optimism concerning the psychological consequences of modernity. Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for You," while being more of an aesthetic defence of low-brow culture, nonetheless makes the point that levels of comprehension required to make sense of even the most mundane TV series (Coronation Street, let's say, although Johnson prefers The Sopranos) far outstrip those required to read an 18th-century novel. The Flynn Effect is by now a well-known and much-tested phenomenon that reinforces this impression. Thus, I would contend, that while social media are not by any means ideal tools, people are growing in their levels of sophistication, including in the how they use such tools (a point Benjamin makes in the quotation you use at the end). Talking about how we can do that was, I think, part of the discussion on Wednesday evening, although I missed the first 20 minutes!

Anyway, thanks a mil for a thoughtful piece. I wouldn't ordinarily ramble on like this - pre-social media, I would only ever have discussed articles with maybe one or two people, if at all! - but your essay was most stimulating! :-)



At 11:02 am, Anonymous LeftAtTheCross said...

I'd agree with John Green's comment above, the first and final paragraphs in particular.

I've followed your blog for a while. It provides an insight into ODS that complements say Helena Sheehan's Facebook discussion, or the many critiques of global Occupy that have been written. All are useful.

On the point of fleeting engagement, perhaps it's useful to view social media as a very lossy transmission channel. Most of what is generated doesn't get read, most of what is read doesn't get digested, most of what is digested doesn't provide nourishment for, doesn't nurture, change beyond the fleeting engagement. But a tiny fraction does. There are no shortcuts on the road to change unfortunately, it's a long march. The important thing is to keep plugging away. ODS is good work on that path.


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